From Computer Business Review, a sister publication.
Back in the mid-eighties when Annrai O’Toole was involved in object oriented software research at Trinity College, Dublin he never imagined that a few years later he would be helping head up a company involved in the launch of 66 satellites into the earth’s atmosphere. But in 1994, and barely one year after shipping its first product, Iona Technologies Plc won a contract to provide the software infrastructure that links together three control centers in Motorola Corp’s Iridium project – a much publicized plan to establish a satellite communication network into the skies. O’Toole, the chief technology officer of application integrator Iona Technologies, formed the company along with fellow academics Chris Horn and Sean Baker in 1991 following the emergence of CORBA common object request broker architecture as an industry standard for object communication. ‘We were academic boffins involved in research work on distributed object technology, I had never worked before,’ says O’Toole. But when the CORBA specification was published, the three academics realized the standard had a lot in common with their research work and decided to try and exploit the opportunity commercially. Iona’s first step was to create Orbix, a tool which conforms to CORBA standards and enables developers to create objects. It also enables objects to communicate with one another regardless of the platform on which they are stored. The Orbix tool works by providing a software infrastructure that ties together different, but interconnected, systems such as customer billing systems and network management systems. Aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co uses the technology to pull together its different software manufacturing systems which order and track parts, in a bid to make its manufacturing processes more efficient. Since the high-profile Motorola Iridium deal, the company has also secured contracts with several major telecommunications companies including US giant Bell South Corp, Swedish LM Ericsson Telefon AB and Hong Kong Telecommunications Ltd.
Competition from giants
For example, the Java-version of Orbix is currently being used in a high speed video server network trial in Hong Kong. Up to 40,000 subscribers are involved in the project, with the number expected to rise to 6 million over the coming months. Iona’s competition comes from established industry giants such as Microsoft Corp and Oracle Corp, but O’Toole believes that these companies are disadvantaged in comparison to Iona because they are not as focused on the middleware market. SunSoft, the software division of Sun Microsystems Inc, is one which was early to recognize the value of Orbix. It plowed a mere $600,000 into Iona for a 25 % share in the company at its inception. Last month, when Iona went public on Nasdaq (CI No 3,108), that stake was valued at $60m. Over the last three years revenues at Iona have rocketed from $2.8m in 1994 to $21m in 1996. Analysts are predicting revenues in the region of $40m for 1997. With offices in now Dublin, Perth, San Francisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts and $62m in the bank, O’Toole says the company is weighing up the value of further expansion as well as possible acquisitions. Iona’s course for international fame certainly now looks set to run smoothly.